Shifting the 800 is just like we expect from a Beemer, a bit clunky, but effective. The 690 is much smoother, but has a big gap between fifth and sixth.
Six-speed transmissions are standard on both. In keeping with the general feel of the bike, the KTM is a little better suited to slow speed work. First gear is a tad tall on the GS, considering how tall the upper end of the box is. For all its new look and design, shifting the 800 still feels like BMWs from generations past. The transmission is a little stiff and hesitant to downshift in a hurry. By comparison the 690 is butter, another of the subtle attributes of the slipper clutch. Stomping down on the shifter always brings the same smooth and controlled reaction. However, the KTM has a huge gap between fifth and sixth, leading to a lot of false neutrals during upshifts.
No matter how much dirt there is in the world, at some point we are all faced with having to hit the highway. We all have to get from point A to B and trying to do so in the dirt sure is fun. Yet each day of our trip we found ourselves spending the bulk of our daylight getting nowhere fast on the dirt and had to pound the pavement to make our next destination.
Off-road the KTM was proving itself to be a sure thing in the fun department. Oh, but how quickly the tables would turn. Lesser friends pressed into this situation would probably turn to ruthless methods to secure the BMW for highway duty. Now you might think that I’m taking a pretty big swing at the 690 here, but I’m not, only at one little part of it, that damn seat! Surely no one has done more to fuel the aftermarket seat business in the past few years than KTM.
Actually the 800 seat has some issues of its own, but not even in the same universe as the 690. The GS seat is too low in front and I consistently found myself trying to sit on the sloping section and having to sort of prop myself there to not slide forward. This is probably the result of trying to accommodate shorter riders. Trying to swing a leg over the Beemer with panniers installed is quite an event. Both bikes are pretty tall feeling when it comes to getting on and off them. The KTM’s 36-inch perch is considerably taller than the GS’ 34.6-inch saddle, but is sometimes easier to manage due to its lighter weight and thinner profile.
The view from the KTM is unobstructed, which means it offers zero protection aside from the handguards, which work very well, thankfully.
Riding each bike back to back down the road gives a great opportunity to really feel the differences. The smallish wind screen on the GS provides some nice protection and was a welcome feeling in the cool weather. It does give some buffeting at the helmet. The 690 with no screen was actually slightly quieter at speed, but the lack of any screen and the upright riding position mean there is a constant need to hold yourself to the bike against the wind. This, combined with wind chill and exposure to rain can tire a rider very quickly. The cold mornings are made much more bearable by the heated handgrips of the 800. Interestingly, the stock handguards on the KTM also provide significant wind and rain protection. The ideal solution would be to have both.
Aside from the seat I have one other bone to pick with KTM. The lighting on the 690 might have been acceptable 10 years ago, but is way behind the curve now. Seriously, it’s enough so that on the last evening I was calculating my arrival time in earnest just to be sure that I would not get caught out after dark on the highway. We actually stopped two different times to make sure the tail light was working because it cannot be seen in the daylight. The headlight I have on my 450 dirt bike is better than that on the 690.
By contrast the GS lights are stellar. The LED rear is super bright, enough to make you think the brake light is stuck on. The first evening we were fire roading after dark, with the 800 trailing the 690 and the Beemer dual-lamp headlight completely eclipsed the KTM.
Both bikes get roughly the same fuel economy, though the Beemer should get some credit for packing extra luggage weight.
Fuel range and mileage are similar between the bikes and ranged significantly depending on conditions. The GS will hold 4.2 gallons compared to the 3.2 of the KTM. Our mpg ran pretty close to each other, but a heavy hand would bring down the mileage on the 800 quicker. Don’t forget the extra burden of weight, which surely played a role. Traveling a little over 1,200 miles side by side, the KTM averaged 52 mpg with a range of 42-62 mpg. The BMW averaged 50 mpg with a range of 39-62 mpg. That equates to an average distance between fill ups of 160 miles for the 690 and 210 miles for the 800. At other times under more aggressive riding, we have had both bikes run low at around 120 miles.
As for overall aesthetics and appeal, the BMW is the crowd stopper. I am always intrigued by the fact that a Beemer is about the only other brand that has some appeal to Harley aficionados. Personally I think the GS in the black and yellow color scheme is a little more macho looking, though ours wasn’t bad dressed in orange. As for the 690, it just doesn’t seem to grab people’s attention in the same way.
We had one evening of spectacular riding down the Salmon River, an open road with long, smooth corners. This is the type of riding where you can see why so many people buy adventure bikes with no intention of taking them off-road. They make great sport touring bikes. The upright riding position and wide bar give great feel and control. While the suspension settings on each felt very different in the dirt, on the street both work well. The 800 always plush and the 690 feeling more like a stout hooligan bike. Both felt right at home carving down the canyon.
That brings us to the apex of our story. Can we take two bikes that come from very different design platforms and find something in common between them; can we start at each end and meet in the middle? Here we have two different approaches to the adventure bike equation. One is more of a true middleweight with its strengths pointing towards comfort and distance, while the other is a strict minimalist.
This was the only time we were worried about the BMW, but some helping hands were all that were needed.
It should be pretty clear by now, and come as no great surprise, that the KTM is the choice for the dirt and the BMW the preferred street mount. While that is certainly true, it also really overlooks the versatility of each bike. Neither was completely out of its element on any of the situations we encountered. There was one mud hole crossing when the water was starting to come over the top of the front fender on the 800, which was somewhere just past the comfort zone.
For me the KTM is sort of a work in progress. It is just shy of being the great single cylinder rally/adventure bike. KTM has enough bikes in its line up to cover most of the bases already, so this one really needs to create a niche where it can shine. It really needs more fuel capacity, better lighting and that Dakar style fairing similar to the old 640 Adventure. That’s a bike that would suit my personal vision of ADV greatness.
The BMW on the other hand is more of a completed concept. It’s a very capable all-rounder that excels on the pavement. It has all the amenities that we have come to expect from the brand. Anyone considering a 1200GS should take this for a spin before making a decision. It might be all the bike you could ever want, in a lighter, more agile package. It is not a full on dirt bike, but it is probably easier to manage off road than nearly every liter class adventure bike. Respect its limits and it can take you to amazing places.